I do not know what I thought Paris would be like but it was not that way.–The Ernest Hemingway Collection, JFK Library item 186
Literary expatriation had an important role in the development of twentieth-century modernist writing, particularly for Americans in Paris during the interwar years. The critics who study this group tend to focus on similar themes—rejection of conservative mores in America, sexual liberation and alcohol consumption, creative cross-fertilization, and so on—such that the cultural migration to France itself is generally treated as a positive experience. Susan Beegel, editor of The Hemingway Review, notes that “Hemingway criticism has tended to celebrate expatriation” (“Report” 1), and due to this inclination, literary scholarship (and work from popular spheres, certainly) has constructed an idealistic image of “Ernest Hemingway in Paris.” Upon close review of the journalism, letters, and fiction he wrote during his residence in France, however, we find an expatriate scene that is sometimes wrought with strain, irritability, even contempt. “[I’ve] been in hell now since Christmas” (Selected Letters 217), he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in September 1926 before enduring several months of despondency, during which he contemplated suicide and drafted a last will. The critical locus of this essay interprets the outcomes of long-term cultural immersion, the consequences of cultural [End Page 49] shocks and readjustments, and the implications of social distance—to analyze an important but often neglected dimension of Hemingway’s life in Paris.
Expatriate Criticism: A Celebratory Register
The critical inclinations concerning Ernest Hemingway in Paris likely derive from the tendency to use A Moveable Feast as a definitive resource on the period. The memoir is unreliable on many levels, however, because it was written in Cuba and Idaho thirty years after Hemingway left the city. The nostalgic tones therein imply that Hemingway was enduringly captivated by and happy in the city, but that portrayal is contradicted by many nonfiction texts and letters he wrote while in Paris (which I will soon discuss). These negative aspects of foreign life, nonetheless, tend to be overlooked by Hemingway critics, nearly all of whom read Paris as a positive experience: Robert Gajdusek asserted that “Paris always remained his favorite city” (10); David Donnell proclaimed without qualification that “Hemingway loved Paris” (56); and Richard Bennet Hovey’s opinion is that “We know that Hemingway preferred being an expatriate” and “that he loved Paris” (69). Hemingway’s relationship with Paris was a succession of high and also very low points, but this is clouded by the glowing nature of much of the critical work on the topic.
The demographic of the scholars who study this theme is also an important factor in the discussion. Very few American critics who have written about Hemingway in Paris live and work in France (Katy Masuga and Adam Gopnik are notable exceptions). Many visit Paris—possibly for up to a year or two as a student or visiting lecturer—before commencing their work, but the realities of scholarship in non-US cultural studies command circumstances local to those subjects. The studies of expatriation (carried out from the US) tend to overlook many critical circumstances about long-term cultural displacement—many of which are negative. Brooke Lindy Blower, for example, spent a year in Paris and returned to the US to write Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the Wars. While she noted that “It is hard to resist such romanticizing” (1) about expatriate life in Paris (see also Benstock 4, Kennedy xi, and Pizer 20, 26), her critical perspectives are dominated by a somewhat unreal positivity of the temporary visitor: “Through American eyes,” she commented, “Paris glimmered, shimmied” (19). She believes the place has “a seductive atmosphere” and “87,775 trees for lovers to embrace under” (4). While Blower arrived at these judgments through analyses of primary texts and other materials from 1918 to 1939, some of the speculative assumptions on expatriation itself—in particular, her perceptions of the rhythms of everyday life—are at least indirectly interpreted through her personal experience (see Blower viii). As a year or two in Paris is significantly different than a decade or half century, the...